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Based on their reading of U.S. domestic politics and the global landscape, nearly every country in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) believes that the United States is poised to revise its posture in the Middle East. The gap between what Gulf states expect from the United States and what Washington is willing to offer has widened in recent years, making this recalibration inevitable. Although the scope, size, and purpose of Washington’s shift are still up for debate, Gulf governments are already preparing for it—even as they are likely to resist any major changes. Yet they are doing so divided—a peculiar mix of anxiety and self-confidence underpins both their hope that any new entrants to the Gulf arena will extend similar security benefits and the sober understanding that the United States remains their preferred, indispensable guarantor.

Recalibration will be no small task for Washington’s strategists and defense planners. The U.S. military footprint is significant and entrenched, the Gulf states remain major security and economic partners, and many of the GCC’s security concerns remain well-founded (however inflated they may be at times). Their capacity to shape, impose a cost on, or even derail U.S. policy cannot be easily wished away. If Washington seeks a more cooperative and inclusive security system that permits reduced U.S. involvement in the Middle East, it will have to recalibrate its position and reassure its partners simultaneously—and cautiously.

Defense Diplomacy Anchors the Relationship

The primacy given to security relations over the past four decades has distorted the broader relationship between the United States and its major regional partners in the GCC. Defense diplomacy has become both the preferred and default way of doing business, providing a sense of continuity as U.S. foreign policy inevitably fluctuates from administration to administration. U.S. Central Command leaders (who are focused on basing, logistics, and operations; command large staffs and massive resources; and are able to placate their local counterparts) and intelligence officials (who are concerned with the domestic and transnational security threats that Middle Eastern governments consider the most acute) have often outshone typically low-profile diplomats who pursue more complex agendas, and can’t be expected to promptly deliver or reward. This dynamic has worked out well for Gulf states; it facilitated relations—notably by sidestepping unpleasant conversations about human rights, domestic governance, and economic prospects—and it cultivated a cadre of friendly officers and defense interlocutors.

The flip side is that defense entanglements have often hidden deteriorating political relations, papered over changing strategic rationales, or obfuscated nontraditional security challenges. When threat perceptions or policies diverge, Washington invariably offers defense consultations or so-called strategic dialogues to smooth differences. Meant as reassurance, such outreach has compounded the problems in the relationship by skirting rather than addressing growing strategic gaps and political tensions.

Emile Hokayem
Emile Hokayem is the senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

This is also true for the Gulf states. Whenever tensions have emerged with Washington, defense relations supersede them. Things like basing rights, lavish conventional arms transfers, and military-to-military cooperation are viewed as a form of insurance policy that ties the United States (and its allies) to the region. The UAE’s planned purchase of F-35 aircraft exemplifies this kind of calculus: however legitimate the military rationale may be (in this case, technological superiority over rivals), the primary goal is to secure Abu Dhabi’s relationship with the U.S. defense establishment for the next three decades, regardless of political differences. Qatar took a similar tack when it came under severe pressure from its neighbors in 2017. The Qataris purchased Eurofighter Typhoon, French Rafale, and U.S. F-15 aircraft to ensure continued goodwill in major Western capitals.

This approach has not delivered the expected defense outcomes. GCC states remain unable to provide their own external security. Gulf power projection is underpinned by Western military assistance and security guarantees even when it is at odds with Western interests and preferences. And the cost of disrupting the entrenched interests, military rent, and institutional arrangements that have been in place for forty years remains high. U.S. military bases and facilities, multidecade defense contracts and servicing, and strong military-to-military cooperation are a glue that binds the Gulf states and the United States.

Most importantly, the focus on defense diplomacy has distracted from looming nontraditional security threats to Gulf stability. From climate change and the energy transition to domestic governance and economic transformation, the GCC’s agenda is loaded with issues that Washington’s securitized approach has done little to prioritize and address.

A Series of Shocks to the U.S.-Gulf Relationship

Today, major Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the United States find themselves misaligned or at odds on many issues. This fact, obfuscated during Donald Trump’s presidency due to its highly personalized and transactional approach, has been starkly highlighted by the return to more disciplined statecraft under President Joe Biden’s administration.

Relations between the United States and its Gulf partners have undergone multiple shocks during recent decades, beginning with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resulting ascendance of Iran. The 2011 Arab uprisings introduced another source of tension. The (arguably short-lived and ambivalent) U.S. embrace of revolutionary change rattled conservative Gulf monarchies. The chaotic regional competition that followed further poisoned relations.

The biggest challenge to U.S.-Gulf relations has been Washington’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran since 2012. The manner in which former president Barack Obama’s administration conducted its negotiations validated Gulf preconceptions about U.S. engagement with Iran. Displeasure with the resulting deal stemmed less from its actual terms than from suspicions that the United States would subordinate Gulf state concerns—notably Iran’s militia network and missile program—to protect its diplomatic success, thus paving the way for greater Iranian reach. Inevitably, subsequent U.S. policy in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen was interpreted through this prism. Discontent with Washington peaked when Obama suggested in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic that Saudi Arabia and Iran “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood.” Rightly or not, it was seen as heralding U.S. accommodation of Iran that belied a fundamental misreading of Iranian ambitions.

The clearest moment of reckoning was the momentous attacks against major Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, reportedly carried out by Iran in retaliation to the Trump administration’s strategy of maximum pressure. The strikes, conducted by UAVs and missiles, halved Saudi oil export capacity for a few weeks and demonstrated enduring Gulf physical vulnerabilities in the face of Iranian military prowess. The U.S. reaction was relatively mum; despite the ostensible closeness between the Saudi ruling family and the Trump administration, the United States declined to identify the attackers and put the onus on Saudi Arabia.

In effect, these attacks clarified for Gulf states Washington’s declining security commitment to the region regardless of who sits in the White House. The United States had recast energy security in the Gulf not as a global public good that it would necessarily and unilaterally defend, but primarily as the responsibility of local powers. This episode augured future changes in the U.S. posture, forcing new Gulf security thinking and defense planning. Not only did Washington expose its local partners to Iranian aggression, but the vaunted U.S. security guarantee could no longer be seen as certain, absolute, or automatic. What remained of president Jimmy Carter’s doctrine to defend U.S. national interest in the Gulf had effectively been buried. Simultaneously, however, it illustrated the Gulf’s enduring dependency on the United States; Riyadh successfully requested for U.S. air defense batteries to be deployed on Saudi soil, and Gulf states showed greater interest in deploying early warning and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities on top on U.S.-made missile defense systems and layered defense.

Gulf officials often note the tension between Washington’s hope that local powers will take ownership of regional security and its expectation that they will continue to align with U.S. standards and policy preferences. But the same actions that many in Washington consider unnecessary, reckless, or belligerent are often seen in Gulf capitals as necessary, justifiable, and defensive. The crisis in Yemen exemplifies this divide. While Gulf officials fixate on the merits, strategic necessity, and legality of the Saudi-led intervention, U.S. officials—especially legislators—are increasingly concerned by its brutal conduct, the humanitarian impact of the ongoing blockade, and the United States’ own moral and political liabilities. Even as Washington emphasizes Saudi violations of the law of armed conflict, Saudi and Emirati officials argue that international complacency is what allowed the Houthis to expand, seize a missile arsenal, and strengthen ties with Iran—making the war inevitable.

Gulf Perspectives on Washington’s Middle East Retrenchment Debate

As Washington policymakers debate the future of the United States’ posture in the Middle East, Gulf states are watching with puzzlement and trepidation. They are ostensibly confident that the dense web of relations they have cultivated with the United States will temper any sudden or radical moves. However, they worry about the rise of a diverse, vocal, and broadening coalition calling for a reassessment of U.S.-Gulf relations.

The Gulf states regard themselves as loyal, grateful partners that have backed U.S. policy on most issues and remained silent when in disagreement, such as with the Iraq war or the Israel-Palestine conflict. From their perspective, the United States undermined a regional order that benefited the monarchies when it invaded Iraq in 2003, supported revolutionary movements in 2011, and prioritized a nuclear deal with Tehran over GCC concerns. The Gulf states’ own arms buildup and aggressive foreign policies followed, rather than preceded, these momentous changes. In their view, maintaining close relations is the best way Washington can make up for these U.S.-made disruptions—and the Gulf states have paid more than a trillion dollars over several decades to ensure it.

The apprehension that Washington will prove at once naive and cynical regarding Iran pervades Gulf thinking. Many Gulf officials still worry that nuclear diplomacy with Iran is meant to pave the way for the United States to accommodate Tehran, disregard GCC concerns, and ultimately allow Iranian hegemony. Gulf officials and observers expect that if no agreement can be struck on Iran’s missile program and regional power projection, any nuclear deal with Iran would need to be accompanied by further U.S. security guarantees. Of course, this demand runs counter to U.S. policy goals in the Middle East, which seek to reduce rather than expand security commitments.

From the Gulf states’ perspective, there are other strong arguments for a lasting U.S. commitment to the region. The Gulf will likely be a key arena for great-power competition, given Chinese energy and geoeconomic interests and Russian power plays. A considerably reduced U.S. role could lead local powers to ramp up engagement with Washington’s strategic rivals. This, Gulf officials are quick to note, is not their preference—but geopolitics may require otherwise. This forewarning, however, does not square with a broad acknowledgment that Russia is an overpromising and uncommitted partner, while an opportunistically mercantilist China remains reluctant to take on security burdens.

Are There Really Alternative Security Partners?

Even though strategic diversification by the Gulf states predates the more recent tensions, anxiety about U.S. retrenchment has accelerated it. The Gulf states have always been sensitive to global shifts of power—real or perceived—and keen to cultivate major powers even when interests don’t align. Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East and China’s arrival therefore offer tantalizing, if overstated, possibilities.

Almost every regional partner of the United States has attempted to diversify its weapons supply over the past decade. Visitors to the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi can see the wide range of non-Western weaponry and services now available to Middle Eastern countries. When denied access to armed U.S. UAVs, for example, Saudi Arabia acquired Chinese CH-4B Rainbows while the UAE bought Chinese Wing Loong II. Israel’s Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems are reportedly high on Gulf wish lists.

Signaling their intention to buy advanced weapons systems from U.S. rivals is one way that Gulf states convey discontent with and demonstrate autonomy from Washington, rather than representing a real concerted shift away from the United States. It also resonates among Arab populations, where China and Russia are popular compared to the United States. Saudi Arabia, for example, is floating the possibility of buying the S-400 air defense system from Russia, as is Qatar. This serves two strategic goals: it is a sign of the kingdom’s displeasure with U.S. policy, but it is also a way to curry favor with Moscow and ensure it does not side with Tehran. The UAE, meanwhile, announced in 2017 that it would collaborate with Russia on the development of a fifth-generation aircraft. The prospects for such a collaboration are low, however—in 2020, the UAE ordered U.S. F-35s.

The Gulf states’ procurement rationales do have some validity. The September 2019 attacks revealed that Saudi Arabia is physically vulnerable to air attacks; the Russian S-400, therefore, is very attractive to the Saudi defense establishment. The acquisition and operating costs of Western systems are also considerably higher, and Western procurement processes are lengthy and politically fraught (which Saudi Arabia and the UAE have experienced recently amid congressional opposition to arms sales over the Yemen war).

However attractive Russian and Chinese procurement options may be, neither offers the suite of security services, products, and—ultimately—guarantees that the United States provides. The Gulf states understand that their fundamental dilemma is the fact that although prosperity may come from the East, their best bet for security is in the West. The guarantee of U.S. strategic support is irreplaceable for the foreseeable future; therefore any hedging by the Gulf states is inescapably limited. Arab defense officials recognize that U.S. and Western technology remains the most appealing and combat proven. Sixty-one percent of Saudi arms purchases came from the United States between 2013 and 2017, followed by the United Kingdom (23 percent) and France (3.6 percent). Part of the United States’ appeal and attraction is the long tail of after-sales servicing, training, and integration that non-Western contractors often don’t offer and that represents an important diplomatic glue.

Recalibration Will Require Reassurance

In the eyes of many in Washington, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are inexorably tainted by their embrace of the Trump administration, support for the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and military intervention in Yemen (and, to a lesser extent, in Libya). Consequently, there is little patience in many circles for their security concerns, and Saudi and Emirati efforts at recalibrating their own policies since 2019 are often dismissed as too little too late. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi—as well as Kuwait City, Manama, Doha, and even Muscat—are worried that, over time, the United States could significantly downsize its physical presence, end the sale of weapons, and ultimately define down its commitment.

These concerns are not necessarily justified. Biden has pledged to “defend [Saudi] sovereignty and territorial integrity and its people,” and there is no sign (yet) of upheaval in their relationship. But unless the relationship is redefined on a healthier basis, calls by former officials and commentators to close the naval base in Bahrain, cancel already agreed-upon weapons sales and stop future ones, and create equivalences between the Gulf states and Iran could find a more sympathetic reception among officials and on Capitol Hill.

U.S. basing in the Gulf is the most visible element of the security relationship, and perhaps the ripest for a reassessment. The current footprint (with bases and facilities in each Gulf state) is oversized, over-resourced, politically exposed, and militarily questionable—deterring Iran does not require such a large presence. The changing nature of warfare and Iran’s technological advances even make U.S. installations a liability in some senses. Downsizing the U.S. footprint can happen if Washington also encourages GCC efforts to develop early warning systems, ISR, modern air defenses, and maritime security.

Arms sales are a thornier topic. The temptation in Washington is to distinguish between offensive and defensive capabilities, and pledge to provide only the latter. But there is no neat difference between the two, and total reliance on air and missile defense is strategically unsatisfactory, operationally insufficient, and very costly. With the lifting of a UN arms embargo on Iran in 2020 and another one to be lifted in 2023, Tehran will likely increase its missile, UAV, and proxy superiority and preserve its nuclear edge. The Gulf states will want to maintain conventional superiority, to ensure credible deterrence over Iran but also to demonstrate to their citizens a degree of self-reliance. Unless Washington is ready to shoulder the burden of deterrence alone, sales of advanced weapons systems will remain high on the bilateral agenda. What can be negotiated down, however, is the size of these extravagant packages.

More importantly, the focus should be on strict conditionality and accountability for power projection in the region. The United States could precisely define the criteria and circumstances under which it would provide or deny assistance (including resupply, servicing, and logistical or intelligence support) to interventions outside the GCC. Washington should also have a clear sense of what assistance it is willing to deny its partners—or, in certain cases, even what sanctions it is willing to impose. The complexity of modern battlefields, the United States’ own checkered military record, the sense that Washington upholds standards it does not necessarily abide by, and the understanding that compliance with the law of armed conflict is weakening will all make a purely legal or technical approach less effective than intense, clear-eyed diplomatic engagement.

As strategists know too well, reassurance is considerably harder and costlier than deterrence. A good place for the United States to start, then, would be by eschewing its tendency to reassure through defense diplomacy.